If only vegetables smelled as good as bacon

Last night I was perusing Loss-Adjusted Food Availability spreadsheets available on the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) website (I know, get a life). Despite the boring title, the data is quite interesting as it provides per capita food availability in the U.S., adjusted for food spoilage, plate waste, “other” losses, and what we export and import. In short, what farmers grow minus what gets tossed before and after a meal equals what Americans are consuming, more or less, of various foods over time. Economists at the USDA have been tracking this data in massive excel spreadsheets since 1970.

Even though this data does not measure actual consumption, that’s done by the good folks over at the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, and the data is alarming.

According to the economists at the ERS, the “average” American (all age groups) consumed 2,594 calories in 2009. As the graph below illustrates, 619 (24%) of those calories came from flour and cereal products (wheat, rice corn, etc.), 596 (23%) from added fats, oil, and dairy fats (butter, margarine, lard, salad and cooking oils, half and half, etc), and so on. Perhaps most striking is the so few calories in the average American diet that are derived from vegetables and fruit.

A mere 87 (3%) calories a day for fruits and 118 (5%) calories from vegetables. We all know that many fruits and veggies are predominately water, but 87 calories from fruits?! Really? If my math is correct – and to put it into perspective – 87 calories of fruit is equivalent to 8-9 McDonald’s French fries.

Of the veggies consumed, a whopping 47% were potatoes (e.g., chips, french fries). Other movers in the veggie category included carrots, onions, beans, legumes, cucumbers, and sweet corn – but all were in the single digits.

Below is a graph plotting the caloric consumption for each of our categories over the past 40 years (calories plotted on left axis). Despite the never-ending messaging to consume more fruits and veggies from every nutritional corner on earth, and the government’s “eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables” initiatives (think 5 A Day program, which is now 5-9 servings a day), fruit and vegetable consumption has remained more or less flat. However, we have seen a steady rise – and even some striking spikes – in other categories.

Interestingly, the government-sponsored 5 A Day program, which was founded in 1991 by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health, was farmed out a few years ago to the Produce for Better Health Foundation, which relies on support from private industry to get out their Fruits & Veggies More Matters message.

As calculated by the ERS researchers, the average daily calories from fruits and veggies above translate into 0.9 servings a day of fruit and 1.7 servings a day for vegetables, for a total of 2.6 servings a day. Even doubling that number to reach the minimum recommended 5 servings a day, something that has not been possible in nearly 40 years, would also mean doubling production. Doubling, much less tripling produce production in the U.S., is much harder than it sounds and likely means more imports – something that freaks out the food safety folks given the soaring land prices in the U.S. (i.e., all the good arable land is taken up with existing crops, cows or pavement).

This is why the launch of the USDA’s new MyPlate, and Harvard’s dueling Healthy Eating Plate, are not likely to get average Americans to consume more fruits and veggies. The messaging is the same, so the results will not be any better (history is our guide here). To honestly increase produce consumption to reasonable levels – what ever that is – will require significant policy initiatives/changes from the top down. We will need to go beyond a poorly funded MyPlate program and overhaul the system fencerow to fencerow and all the way to the grocery isle and classrooms of America. That means farm subsidies, looking at predatory marketing by food companies, addressing social inequalities from WIC to grocery stores in disadvantaged neighborhoods, better planned communities, and dare I say, teaching underlying biological principles of human evolution and genetics that are selected for our current nutritional needs.

Unfeigned biologically-driven education + policy is what will move the needle.

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